"Green space in cities shouldn't be considered an optional luxury," wrote Charles Montgomery in "Happy City, Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design." He points to an "explosion of research into the benefits of nature," which could include this summer's robust data by researchers in Toronto showing that living on a city block with 10 or more trees on it has the same benefits as boosting your income by $10,000 or being seven years younger.
So what is going on with the Metro Centre in Owings Mills? I realize it is still early in the project, a mixed-use development that announced plans for its first office building this month. But where are the trees? What's the landscaping plan?
I searched in vain on the website for something more than the blueprints of wan shrubbery and thin trees flanking walls of commerce and found instead that: "More than 160,000 consumers reside within a five-mile radius of Metro Centre at Owings Mills, with an average household income exceeding $85,000/year…" Yet we residents are more than consumers and income-getters. We are people in need of nature. Urban nature — not vacation nature. Not the woods, not off the grid, just a simple blurring of the lines. Climbing vines that soften the sharp cubist edges of all these brick buildings going up in Metro Centre. Greenery that soothes, rejuvenates and amplifies.
The vast bulk of commercial real estate and architecture of Baltimore County is gritty, traffic-bound and, let's be honest, ugly. Reisterstown Road development, York Road development — need I say more? These are places you wouldn't walk even if you could (and you can't, there often isn't the sidewalk for it). The re-redevelopment of Owings Mills presents an opportunity to fix mistakes and to prove that we've learned from our dead mall and its "dead frontage," as Mr. Montgomery calls it in Happy City. "The blocks long blank and tidy facades of big-box stores harm the physical health of the people living nearby," he writes. A happy city needs blocks with "plenty of doors, windows, porch stoops and destinations."
We want sidewalk cafes, we want sidewalks. We want street life. To have those, first we need trees.
An emerald necklace of parks, urban gardens and thoughtful landscaping inspires this kind of developers' dream of commerce and conviviality. Even a simple well-maintained group of potted plants can increase a person's sense of serenity. I'm playing the health card here — nature is an antidote to anxiety — but there are also aesthetic merits.
If the Owings Mills Metro Centre aims to be the "'unofficially official meeting place' for residents, office workers and visitors," as it claims on its website, it must be a place where people want to be and pass the time, not pass through. It isn't now. I hurry across the stone-paved plaza to return my library books. It is a barren courtyard save for the days when the food trucks arrive. My kids never linger. My daughter, 8, asked, 'Wouldn't it be great here if there was a fountain?" Perhaps she is a future urban designer. Kids' instincts about spaces show us at our most primal, and perhaps, researchers think, hearken back to our past: We like shade, we like pools of still water, we like respite.
"Most people really like savannah-like views," writes Mr. Montgomery. "Low, grassy ground vegetation, trees that are scattered or gathered in small groups, with layered branching systems and broad canopies." These kinds of views have an "inherently calming affect on us, perhaps because they depict landscapes dipolar to this in which the human brain developed."
Just saying the phrase "broad canopy" makes me smile, actually.
But what I fear will grow at Metro Centre will be what James Howard Kunstler, in his TED talk "The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs," calls "nature Band-aids" — little patches of pesticide-drenched grass that no one ever sits on, mulch up the wazoo and mostly deserted. I don't want that to happen. I know the developer doesn't want that to happen, so we're on the same page. I'm happy to lend a hand to dig, to put skin in the game — and with my kids growing up here I already do. I want the end product to be a space glossy with greenery, vibrant and vining, a space that truly will be the life-loving heart of the city and not another soulless cookie-cutter cement jungle.
Elizabeth Bastos is a freelance writer. Her email is email@example.com.